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Trading Ketch Ilen to Make Foynes Her Base as 2021 Programme Gets Under Way in May

14th April 2021
The newly-built Ilen at Foynes on 22nd July 1926, as recorded in his own highly personal style by Harbour Master Hugh O’Brien
The newly-built Ilen at Foynes on 22nd July 1926, as recorded in his own highly personal style by Harbour Master Hugh O’Brien Credit: Courtesy O’Brien family

Global circumnavigator and sailing ship designer Conor O’Brien (1880-1952) inevitably saw his most noted vessels, the 42ft world-girdler Saoirse and the 56ft trading ketch Ilen, being closely associated by the rest of the world with their birthplace in Baltimore. But much and all as he liked West Cork, he always insisted that ultimately his heart was in the Shannon Estuary on Foynes Island, where he was living when designed both vessels, and so he made a point of ensuring that they spent some time in the Foynes anchorage before going off on their great voyages. Thus although Saoirse’s pioneering cruise round the world south of the great Capes is generally thought to have started from Dun Laoghaire on June 20th 1923, O’Brien secretly reckoned it had got going from Foynes some weeks earlier. And equally, while the official records show that Ilen’s voyage to the Falkland Islands started from Avonmouth near Bristol on the 26th August 1926, as far as her skipper was concerned, the voyage had got under way from Foynes on the 28th July 1926.

There’s charming proof of this in the Foynes Harbour Master’s personal log from the 1920s. At the time, the HM was Hugh O’Brien, who was Conor O’Brien’s brother-in-law through marriage to one of the voyager’s sisters, while sharing his surname through being distantly related as a de Vere O’Brien of Curragh Chase. As Harbour Master, Hugh O’Brien was wont to embellish his records book with drawings of visiting vessels of special interest, and naturally, the new Ilen got the complete treatment in July 1926, resulting in very tangible evidence of Conor O’Brien’s assertion that this was the ship’s spiritual home port.

Now that Ilen has passed her biennial Department of Transport survey (as recently reported in Afloat.ie), the coming easing of pandemic restrictions means that plans are being firmed up for her programme in May, and she will shortly leave her winter berth in Kinsale to make the familiar passage round Ireland’s majestic southwestern seaboard towards Foynes, where Foynes Yacht Club have generously allocated a berth. This will enable the Ilen Marine School to implement as full a programme as the regulations at the time will permit, and the fact that it will see Ilen spend a longer period at her spiritual home than she ever has in her 95 years of existence will be a salute to the faithfully-kept records of Hugh O’Brien.

WM Nixon

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WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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Ireland's Trading Ketch Ilen

The Ilen is the last of Ireland’s traditional wooden sailing ships.

Designed by Limerick man Conor O’Brien and built in Baltimore in 1926, she was delivered by Munster men to the Falkland Islands where she served valiantly for seventy years, enduring and enjoying the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and Screaming Sixties.

Returned now to Ireland and given a new breath of life, Ilen may be described as the last of Ireland’s timber-built ocean-going sailing ships, yet at a mere 56ft, it is capable of visiting most of the small harbours of Ireland.

Wooden Sailing Ship Ilen FAQs

The Ilen is the last of Ireland’s traditional wooden sailing ships.

The Ilen was designed by Conor O’Brien, the first Irish man to circumnavigate the world.

Ilen is named for the West Cork River which flows to the sea at Baltimore, her home port.

The Ilen was built by Baltimore Sea Fisheries School, West Cork in 1926. Tom Moynihan was foreman.

Ilen's wood construction is of oak ribs and planks of larch.

As-built initially, she is 56 feet in length overall with a beam of 14 feet and a displacement of 45 tonnes.

Conor O’Brien set sail in August 1926 with two Cadogan cousins from Cape Clear in West Cork, arriving at Port Stanley in January 1927 and handed it over to the new owners.

The Ilen was delivered to the Falkland Islands Company, in exchange for £1,500.

Ilen served for over 70 years as a cargo ship and a ferry in the Falkland Islands, enduring and enjoying the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and Screaming Sixties. She stayed in service until the early 1990s.

Limerick sailor Gary McMahon and his team located Ilen. MacMahon started looking for her in 1996 and went out to the Falklands and struck a deal with the owner to bring her back to Ireland.

After a lifetime of hard work in the Falklands, Ilen required a ground-up rebuild.

A Russian cargo ship transported her back on a 12,000-mile trip from the Southern Oceans to Dublin. The Ilen was discharged at the Port of Dublin 1997, after an absence from Ireland of 70 years.

It was a collaboration between the Ilen Project in Limerick and Hegarty’s Boatyard in Old Court, near Skibbereen. Much of the heavy lifting, of frames, planking, deadwood & backbone, knees, floors, shelves and stringers, deck beams, and carlins, was done in Hegarty’s. The generally lighter work of preparing sole, bulkheads, deck‐houses fixed furniture, fixtures & fittings, deck fittings, machinery, systems, tanks, spar making and rigging is being done at the Ilen boat building school in Limerick.

Ten years. The boat was much the worse for wear when it returned to West Cork in May 1998, and it remained dormant for ten years before the start of a decade-long restoration.

Ilen now serves as a community floating classroom and cargo vessel – visiting 23 ports in 2019 and making a transatlantic crossing to Greenland as part of a relationship-building project to link youth in Limerick City with youth in Nuuk, west Greenland.

At a mere 56ft, Ilen is capable of visiting most of the small harbours of Ireland.

©Afloat 2020

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